Cantankerous Wisdom: Move Over, Old Man!

By Bill Adams

Serving in three fire departments in two different states, I’ve accumulated 50 gratifying years in the volunteer fire service. Much to the delight of some younger members not yet collecting social security, I’ve pulled the plug. I’m out of their hair. I resigned. It was time and probably long overdue. Many moons ago, my company’s by-laws stated you couldn’t join until you were 21 and your 56th birthday was your first day out. It was nonnegotiable. Back then, it had merit. They figured you’d fulfill your military obligation by 21 and would stay in the FD for the long haul. And after age 55, many guys were physically over the hill, although most wouldn’t admit it. The philosophy was you were either an active firefighter or you were history. They had no in between. It was like putting a lame horse out to pasture, or worse yet calling a veterinarian to put it down. When you started to physically slow down and the pager went off, the wife would say, “be careful,” on your way out the door. When she started saying, “check the date on your driver’s license,” you knew you were getting close to pulling the plug.

I’ve seen people resign and bad mouth the fire department. Perhaps they can’t accept it’s no longer their turn. Or, maybe they are complaining because of their age, ailments, or because they are no longer relevant. It is immaterial. That conduct is inappropriate. Keep the veterinarian’s phone number handy.

Conversely, those who’ve been around long enough to see all the rigs in the barn replaced twice-over have earned the right to express an opinion, suggest, bloviate, and even BS a little bit. To their detriment, the younger generation can’t always differentiate between opinions, recommendations, criticisms, and cow patties. Occasionally, the way things were done in the good old days may have merit today. Some observations:

  • There doesn’t appear to be a great sense of urgency. People seldom run into the fire station when the siren blows. Half of them wander in just to get credit for answering the alarm—usually with no real intention in getting on the apparatus. So much for esprit-de-corps, retirement plans, and retention.
  • It was cast in concrete on every structure-related call that the first-due engine pulled well beyond a building to leave room for the truck company. Regardless of the alarm’s severity, every time the ladder truck responded it was positioned to use the aerial. That was good training. Today, some engines stop right in front of a house giving excuses of “Well, it’s only an automatic alarm,” or “The Chief said nothing was showing.” Except for justifiable fireground operations, apparatus drivers and officers should follow established protocol. The fire department has always been a quasi-military organization. For the sake of decorum and discipline, it should remain so. Don’t denigrate the Marine Corps slogan, “Improvise,Adapt, and Overcome,” by using it as an excuse to freelance on the fireground. There is a difference. Old timers can see it.
  • One fire department’s SOP read that when its heavy rescue arrived at a working fire, its driver’s responsibility was to ensure the structure’s utilities were shut off. That was his job. Nobody had to order it done. Lately, it only seems to get done when somebody thinks about it—usually after the fact. It’s no different than SOPs having the first-due engine company lay in or the truck company throw ladders on all four sides of a working house fire—without being told to do so. Times are changing. Old people either have to change, stop whining, or get out of the way.
  • Ask today’s pump operators what physically happens when the pump shift is engaged in the cab. What are the mechanics behind the evolution? A fire truck can cost a half a million bucks, and if someone wants to operate it, they ought to know what the hell happens when they move that little yellow switch.
  • When using screw threads, how many people understand what it means when you ask “Higbee to Higbee”? Ask them what a Higbee indicator is and they’ll probably say that’s when the Higbee brothers hold hands walking down the street. Most don’t know what “fingering the gasket” means either. These days, it may be politically incorrect to ask them.
  • Times are changing when you are the one who gets upset when the troops don’t want to consider anything new and different. Old people are only supposed to like old stuff. Do younger members say, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” when you broach a subject they don’t understand or ask them a question they can’t answer? If you get flustered, it’s time for you to go.

I’ve heard people say it doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s a job for everyone in the volunteer fire department. That may have merit for tasks like raising money, making coffee, cooking for the monthly meeting, or being the secretary or treasurer. Under no circumstances should someone who is not 100 percent physically fit be put in a position on the fireground where they can inadvertently become a liability. Active firefighters should participate in mitigating problems. Prevent them from creating a new problems in doing so. I’m not going to put the department in that position. Good luck, stay low, and be safe.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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